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A trip to the dentist can be a harrowing experience. The prospect of sharp instruments poking our gums or prodding our teeth can wreak havoc on the psyche. That’s why Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, D.D.S., urges her fellow dentists to stay attuned to patients’ needs and concerns. Howell has worked as a practicing dentist for 29 years and also serves as consumer advisor spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. According to her, this is the best way to gain a patient’s trust: “Always ask them what matters most to them, so you can make their appointments comfortable and less stressful,” she says. “At the end of the day, that’s what we want. We want our patients to be happy.”
You might find a dentist at an outpatient care center or hospital, but you’re most likely to visit one at a private office or clinical setting. Dentists work alongside dental assistants, who help with record-keeping, sterilizing instruments, and teeth-cleaning. And like a dental hygienist, a dentist might also clean teeth and educate patients on proper dental care. Their other duties could also include extracting teeth, fitting dentures, and filling cavities. Some choose to specialize in areas that range from treating serious oral problems and diseases to straightening teeth and performing oral surgery.
The need for professionals to examine our teeth, fill and (in some cases) refill our cavities isn’t fading. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment growth of about 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, above the average for all occupations. Work opportunities are especially plentiful for those who work in traditional dentist offices and other health practitioner offices. There should be more than 25,000 new openings in this profession in the next eight years.
According to the BLS, dentists earned $142,740 in 2011, or approximately $68.62 per hour. The best-paid earned more than $187,999, while the lowest-paid earned less than $74,490. Dentists who work in private offices are paid particularly well, but so are those who work alongside other health practitioners. Certain cities also compensate well—specifically, the metro areas of Manchester, N.H., Tyler, Texas, and Rocky Mount, N.C.
Those interested in becoming a dentists should start their journey in high school, focusing on courses in chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy, and mathematics. Then, in their junior year of college, they must take and pass the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT). Also while pursing a bachelor’s degree, aspiring dentists should take courses in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. “It’s incredibly helpful to do as well as you can in those requirements when applying to dental school because it’s heavily based in science,” Howell says. Dental students take an eclectic mix of classes like local anesthesia, anatomy, periodontology (study of oral disease and health), and radiology. The training doesn’t stop there: Dentists interested in full-time teaching and research must acquire an additional two to five years of training. And specialty training involves a one- to two-year residency in a program linked to their chosen niche.
Contacting a local dental school can be the first, crucial step in gaining a foothold in dentistry. For those with minimal prior training, taking a job as a dental assistant can also be a good way to break into the profession. “I would go to ADA.org [the American Dental Association’s website],” Howell says. “There’s so much information about what you need to do.” She also suggests visiting a dental school to ask what the requirements are for being accepted. “If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way.”